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JOHNSONI A N A.
ANECDOTES OF DR. JOHNSON,
BY MRS. PIOZZI. 1
1. Introductory. I AM aware that many will say, I have not spoken highly enough of Dr. Johnson ; but it will be difficult for those who say so, to speak more highly. If I have described his manners as they were, I have been careful to show his superiority to the common forms of common life. It is surely no dispraise to an oak that it does not bear jessamine ; and he who should plant honeysuckle round Trajan's column, would not be thought to adorn, but to disgrace it. When I have said, that he was more a man of genius than of learning, I mean not to take from the one part of his character that which I willingly give to the other. The erudition of Mr. Johnson proved his genius; for he had not acquired it by long or profound study ; nor can I think those characters the greatest which have most learning driven into their heads, any more than I can persuade myself to consider the river Jenisca as superior to the Nile, because the first receives near seventy tributary streams in the course of its unmarked progress to the sea, while the great parent of African plenty, flow.
1 First published in 1785.
ing from an almost invisible source, and unenriched by any extraneous waters, except eleven nameless rivers, pours his majestic torrent into the ocean by seven celebrated mouths.
2. Bodily Exercises. Mr. Johnson was very conversant in the art of attack and defence by boxing, which science he had learned from his uncle Andrew', I believe ; and I have heard him descant
the age when people were received, and when rejected in the schools once held for that brutal amusement, much to the admiration of those who had no expectation of his skill in such matters, from the sight of a figure which precluded all possibility of personal prowess; though, because he saw Mr. Thrale one day leap over a cabriolet stool, to show that he was not tired after a chase of fifty miles or more, he suddenly jumped over it too; but in a way so strange and so unwieldy, that our terror lest he should break his bones took from us even the power of laughing.
3. Showing off Children. The trick which most parents play with their children, of showing off their newly-acquired accomplishments, disgusted Mr. Johnson beyond expression : he had been treated so himself, he said, till he absolutely loathed his father's caresses, because he knew they were sure to precede some unpleasing display of his early abilities; and he used, when neighbours came o' visiting, to run up a tree that he might not be found and exhibited, such, as no doubt he was, a prodigy of early understanding. His epitaph upon the duck he killed by treading on it at five
“ Here lies poor duck,” &c. is a striking example of early expansion of mind, and knowledge of language; yet he always seemed more mortified at the recollection of the bustle his parents made with his wit, than pleased with the thoughts of possessing it. “ That,”
1 ["I had an uncle Andrew, my father's brother, who kept the ring in Smithfield (where they wrestled and boxed), for a whole year, and never was thrown or conquered.' See Boswell's Johnson, vol. i, p. 312. edit. 1835.]
said he to me one day, “ is the great misery of late marriages; the unhappy produce of them becomes the plaything of dotage : an old man's child,” continued he, “ leads much such a life, I think, as a little boy's dog, teased with awkward fondness, and forced, perhaps, to sit up and beg, as we call it, to divert a company, who at last go away complaining of their disagreeable entertainment.” In consequence of these maxims, and full of indignation against such parents as delight to produce their young ones early into the talking world, I have known Mr. Johnson give a good deal of pain, by refusing to hear the verses the children could recite, or the songs they could sing ; particularly one friend who told him that his two sons should repeat Gray's Elegy to him alternately, that he might judge who had the happiest cadence. “No, pray Sir,” said he, “ let the dears both speak it at once; more noise will by that means be made, and the noise will be sooner over.”
4. Parson Ford. Mr. Johnson always spoke to me of his cousin, the Rev. Mr. Ford', with tenderness, praising his acquaintance with life and manners, and recollecting one piece of advice that no man surely ever followed more exactly. “Obtain,” says Ford, “ some general principles of every science ; he who can talk only on one subject, or act only in one department, is seldom wanted, and perhaps never wished for ; while the man of general knowledge can often benefit, and always please.” He used to relate, however, another story less to the credit of his cousin's penetration, how Ford on some occasion said to him, “ You will make your way the more easily in the world, I see, as you are contented to dispute no man's claim to conversation excellence; they will, therefore, more willingly allow your pretensions as a writer.”
Cornelius Ford, according to Sir John Hawkins, was his cousin-german, being the son of Dr. Ford, an eminent physician, who was brother to Johnson's mother. – MALONE.
5. Johnson's Nurse. Children's Books. Dr. Johnson first learned to read of his mother and her old maid Catherine, in whose lap he well remembered sitting while she explained to him the story of St. George and the Dragon. The recollection of such reading as had delighted him in his infancy, made him always persist in fancying that it was the only reading which could please an infant; and he used to condemn me for putting Newbery's books into their hands, as too trifling to engage their attention. “ Babies do not want,” said he, “to hear about babies ; they like to be told of giants and castles, and of somewhat which can stretch and stimulate their little minds.” When in answer I would urge the numerous editions and quick sale of Tommy Prudent or Goody Two Shoes : “ Remember always,” said he, “ that the parents buy the books, and that the children never read them.” Mrs. Barbauld, however, had his best praise, and deserved it: no man was more struck than Mr. Johnson with voluntary descent from possible splendour to painful duty.
6. Dreams and Ghosts. I have heard him relate an odd thing of himself, but it is one which every body has heard as well as I : how, when he was about nine years old, having got the play of Hamlet in his hand, and reading it quietly in his father's kitchen, he kept on steadily enough, till, coming to the ghost scene, he suddenly hurried up stairs to the street door that he might see people about him ; such an incident, as he was not unwilling to relate it, is probably in every one's possession now; he told it as a testimony to the merits of Shakspeare : but one day when my son was going to school, and dear Dr. Johnson followed as far as the garden gate, praying for his salvation, in a voice which those who listened attentively could hear plain enough, he said to me suddenly, “ Make your boy tell you his dreams : the first corruption that entered into my heart was communicated in a dream.” " What was it, Sir?” said I. “ Do not ask me,” replied he, with much